War and peace around the kitchen table:
how parents and teenagers manage family life today

John Coleman

Family Links Annual Dinner, Oxford


I feel very privileged to be standing here. Last year I was part of the audience in this wonderful space, and this evening I am proud and delighted to have been asked by Annette to give this after-dinner address.

I called this talk “War and Peace around the Kitchen Table” for two reasons. The first of these was exemplified perfectly to me the other day when a colleague of mine who has two teenage daughters asked me what I was going to be talking about tonight. I gave her the title “War and Peace Around the Kitchen Table”, and she looked at me and said, “More war than peace John.” And I think that’s really important, because that is how we do perceive this relationship between parents and teenagers. My determination in life is to try and alter the balance, and help people recognise the positives as well as the negatives, and that’s what I’m going to talk about this evening.

But there’s another reason why I called it “War and Peace around the Kitchen Table”, because I think it’s an intensely domestic issue. There are lots of myths around adolescence. One of the myths is that really once they get to 13 or 14, the family doesn’t matter any more. The peer group takes over, the peer group becomes more influential, so really what parents do doesn’t matter that much. And the fact is that that is simply untrue. We really have to try and get this across to everyone we know, that parents matter. Parents of teenagers matter more than anything else.

It may be that young people are going out there discussing music or leisure or clothes or boyfriends or girlfriends or whatever, but the real influences that are going to affect them in their lives are their families. We know that apart from actual intelligence, parental attitudes towards education are the biggest single factor predicting academic success. We know that it is true also of self-esteem. A lot of people say it’s what the peer group think. It isn’t. The way that parents view young people is a primary variable affecting self-esteem. I could go on about this, but essentially this is an issue that starts in the family, and needs to be thought about as happening around the kitchen table, which is why I gave it this title.

Now, the question that Annette and I thought might be interesting to discuss at this dinner is what’s changed over the last thirty years in terms of parenting. When you ask parents that, everyone thinks things are different today, but the sorts of things they mention vary hugely. Some say that young people have more freedom, so they can do things that simply weren’t possible in previous generations. There are some limits of course, but there’s more freedom today, and that’s more difficult for adults. Others mention things like drugs, and young people having more money. And then there is stress. Many parents will say it’s much more stressful today, with exams and SATs tests and that sort of thing. The other thing people often mention is computers, the internet, mobile phones, technology and so on. So those are the sorts of things that, if you ask a group of parents or talk to a group of parents in school, those are the sorts of things that come from the floor.

Another perspective is to ask what the research about young people tells us. Research tells us is that the biggest thing is the rapidity of change. I know that historically if you look at the earliest part of the 20th century there were two great wars and so on, but actually there’s been much more rapid change, at least change that affects teenagers, in the last 30 or 40 years than has ever been the case before.

So first of all, and this will be familiar to all of you, but it’s worth saying, change in families. Families have changed hugely, and the chart that I often show my students is simply the increase in the number of children growing up in single-parent families. In the last 20 years it has gone from 7% of families to 25% in this country headed by a lone parent. Now that’s a major social change, and it’s brought with it a raft of new relationships, the whole questioning about the role of step-parents, the relationships between different kinds of parenting, of parenting away from the family and the role of the father or the mother who’s not living in the family home.

The other really big thing is the changing world of education, training and employment. One of the key themes, as you all know, of adolescence is, what am I going to do? What’s going to happen to me? And whereas in the 50s and 60s, the routes were fairly clear, everybody roughly knew what the options were; today people don’t know what the options are.

It’s true that we have a large proportion of people who are going to take their ‘A’ levels and go onto university, but that still leaves more than half our population for whom the routes from education into work are unclear. All the research that’s been done in the last ten years or so, shows, perhaps more clearly than anything else, the confusion about which routes there are to maturity, adulthood and employment. That has a profound effect on this generation.

So those are two very very big changes, but I think there are others too. I think we have to recognise that adolescence, however you like to define it, is starting earlier and ending later. If you look at children behaving in the playground at primary schools, Year 5s, Year 6s, you see quite mature behaviour, you see children talking about girlfriends and boyfriends, and about dating. There’s much more awareness of adolescent-type behaviour at an earlier age, not to mention that many of us believe that puberty itself is getting earlier.

We also know from research that younger and younger children feel more autonomous. They feel that they take decisions about aspects of their lives at a much earlier stage. You find that children are choosing their own clothes, how their bedroom’s going to look and so on, which in earlier generations, it would have been the adult who would have done that. As a result there’s more autonomy earlier, but also, there’s more uncertainty later, so you’ve got a situation where you’ve got a much more extended age range.

The other thing that’s really interesting and important here, and it is related to what I’ve been saying, there’s a stage that is probably not necessarily adolescence, from 18 into early adulthood, which is again, really undergoing substantial change. And a phrase that’s used to describe this group is “emerging adulthood”. I don’t know whether it’s a particularly attractive phrase, but you all know what it means. And you may have experienced it in your own families and in your communities, that more and more young people are delaying getting into work or employment or careers. One reflection of this is that when they leave university, they don’t go off and share a flat with friends, they come home. And often they go travelling and then they think they’ll do a Masters degree perhaps, and then they think perhaps they’ll hang around at home and there aren’t any jobs anyway, and so on. I’m joking of course, but this is a really serious issue, because we’ve got a generation that is taking much much longer to get into the labour market, and that has profound effects for the economy; but it has profound effects for families as well.

I’ve been really interested in this third decade, the twenties if you like. I was very struck, because recently I heard at a conference that in America, there’s a foundation called the MacArthur Foundation (find link to foundation) and they’ve actually set up a network on what they call adult transitions, which is really looking at what actually happens to young people in their twenties.. And there’s been very, very little research on this cohort.

One aspect of this is the increase in the numbers going to university. Young people are being offered education at a higher level, more and more of them have gone to university and yet, where are the jobs? You go to university and get a good degree, let’s say in history, and you have expectations about your future career, and you come home, and what are you going to do? You don’t want to go and work in Sainsburys or Boots. You expect something better, but can we satisfy those expectations? I don’t think we can. If I were to write a book about this phenomenon I would call it “Blair’s Children”. We had “Thatcher’s Children”, the product of the 1980s, but now we have these young people, the product of the first decade of the 21st century.

So, those are some of the changes that I think are important. Now this talk is called “War and Peace”, and I don’t need to talk about the war, because you all know about the conflicts, the negative things, we have too much focus on that anyway. So I want to talk about the good things, the positive things. What I want to do really is two things now. I want to focus on some of the positives and then I want to think a little bit about what all of us can do to make the lives of young people better, because that’s all this is really all about.

So what about the positives? I think the first thing to say is the list Annette read out at the beginning is so very interesting. Here you have young people saying they want to talk, they want to communicate, they want to be listened to, so communication with adults is really important, and yet only one in four adults think that’s important. What sort of a world do we live in? Where do these adults get their ideas from? Why have we done so little about raising their awareness of how important this is? Sometimes I really wonder about the way we think about young people. But seriously, one of the real positives is that young people are far, far more resourceful than we give them credit for, whether it’s in schools, whether it’s in children’s homes, whether it’s in foster families, whether it’s in our own families.

We have an attitude that we have to do it for them; we are scared of allowing that freedom and resourcefulness. And one of my strong beliefs, and one of the reasons why the internet and new technologies are so important to young people is because it’s an arena where they’re better than adults, where they can express their autonomy, where they can get their information. And I often say, and people laugh at this, that technology and young people are made for each other, because the new technologies provide all the things there that young people need, but which are restricted and boundaried in their relationships. However young people are resourceful, they want to explore, they want to do things for themselves, and yet somehow we’ve created this world in which we’re not very good at helping them do it.

The second thing I think that’s really important is the issue of passive and active. We have a model, which we take from the parenting of younger children, which is essentially one where the parent is the active agent. It’s the parent who makes the decisions, and that comes from the childhood model, and it’s very difficult for parents to shift and to think about adolescents as active agents. And it’s true in the research we do; so much of the research actually sees young people as being recipients, being spoon-fed. Education is like that. I lecture to PGCE students and I see some of the things they do in schools and it is unbelievable, the model which we have, which is basically one in which we expect people to sit there and take whatever subject it is, imbibe it, without any active involvement. And young people want to be agents or actors in their own lives.

The third topic to mention is to do with participation. It’s become a very trendy word. Essentially participation means involving young people in decision-making, whether it’s policy decision-making or something like the school’s council or whatever. And this participation agenda is really growing and it’s exciting. I don’t know how many of you have read about or heard about the UK Youth Parliament. It hit the headlines because they actually were allowed to sit in the House of Lords, and after that the House of Commons said they couldn’t sit in the House of Commons because they’d never had anyone sitting in the House of Commons apart from elected representatives. There was a big row about it and the Commons finally agreed! The UK Youth Parliament has actually been really effective. PSHE hopefully is going to be made compulsory and I think that’s as much because of the UK youth parliament as because of anyone else.

The last thing I want to say about the positives is to do with what I call the other 90%. The 90% is the percent of young people who basically get on with their lives. Yet what we focus on, the media focuses on it, and social attitudes are created because of it, are the 10%. This group are the young people who are damaged, disadvantaged, who grow up in deprivation, with very inadequate parenting support. And yet somehow those are the ones who seem to represent or symbolise a whole generation, yet they’re actually a very small minority. Recent studies of mental health show that 9.5% of children and young people have mental health problems. Of course this is a very important group, but it’s not 90% of all young people.. And there are many other examples of things like that. Everyone thinks that teenagers are having sex at the age of 13. There are young people at 13 or 14 who are sexually active, but teenagers think everyone’s doing it, whilst actually it is a very small minority.. We’ve got a real problem about how we understand this group of young people, so really, keep in mind the other 90%!

I want now to turn to the question of what we can do to make young people’s lives better. When I was first thinking about this I thought I should divide it into what can be done for everyone, a universal approach, and then what can we do for the really damaged and disadvantaged. However I decided, actually I shouldn’t do that really, so what I’m going to say is for everyone. Of course there are dozens of things you could do, but I’m going to focus on two things. The first thing, and I think this is a really fascinating conundrum, is that there is masses of information available for all of us about young children. There are all manner of authors who’ve written about bringing up baby, and managing your toddler and so on, but how much information is there about understanding adolescence? Very, very little. When I started TSA in 1989, one of the first things we did was develop materials for parents of teenagers and we went around going to WH Smiths and looking in bookshops and making a big fuss about the fact there was hardly a single book about parenting teenagers.

I genuinely thought that it would change, that things would get better, but actually it hasn’t got terribly much better. All the things we’ve talked about, Annette’s example of 25% of parents thinking it’s important to listen to young people is as good an example as I can give. We need to educate, we need to inform, and if I could do anything, it would be to find a way of providing parents and adults generally, politicians, everyone, information about normal adolescent development. All the confusing things that people think, actually they’re all explicable, they’re all perfectly understandable if we just knew a little bit about adolescent development.

One of the key things everyone needs to know is that inside every adolescent is both a child and an adult. If you know that, you can understand the flip-flop, the fact that they can be very mature one moment and very demanding and babyish the next. That’s a very basic thing. So that’s the first thing. It’s as true in custody, in prison as it is in children’s homes and as it is in ordinary families. Everyone needs better information about the development of young people at this stage of their lives.

The second thing that needs to be addressed is the whole question of stigma, the stereotype that’s associated with this age group. If we could encourage adults to value young people, to endorse what they’ve got to offer, to listen to them, we’d be doing a huge amount for young people. And so, I think those are challenges for us. And it’s very important for me, and wonderful to be speaking at the invitation of an organisation that’s called Family Links, because really that’s what it’s all about. If we could get families to endorse young people, to listen to young people, and also to understand a little more, then I think we could really do something very good.

I applaud everything that Family Links is doing, and I’m so pleased to have been asked to talk here, because I can’t think of a charity that is better suited or where it is more appropriate to talk about young people and what they need today than Family Links.


No 1
Someone told me that what was happening in an adolescent’s brain from about 13 to 15 was as dynamic as what is happening in an infant’s brain from zero to two and when I heard that fact alone, it made me think, that as you say we concentrate on those very early baby years knowing that every smile and every look will have an impact, but we don’t feel the same about adolescents. Is that really true? Is that’s what is happening in an adolescent’s brain?

Almost, but not quite. If you think about physical growth, that’s the actual physical growth of the individual, then the most rapid time is the first year, but the next most rapid time is puberty. So the time that you grow fastest, apart from the first year, is during puberty. And it’s pretty much the same as with what happens in the brain. The biggest development is in the first year or first eighteen months, and the next most rapid period is around and after puberty. There has been a lot of interest in the last few years in the adolescent brain, and all sorts of strange, weird and wonderful ideas have been suggested. We can’t look into the brain or anything like that, but we can see where the activity is taking place. One of the things that seems to be happening, first of all, is that connections are being made in adolescence which weren’t there before. I don’t want to spend too much time on this, but for example, the two hemispheres of the brain get better connected during this period, but also there’s a lot of change in the cell structures and so on. So it’s certainly true that an awful lot is happening, but I personally feel that we need to be a little cautious because while we do know something, there’s an awful lot we yet don’t know.

No 2
So how do you get round the fact that teenagers often say ‘Oh Dad you’re so embarrassing, I don’t want to be seen with you’ and so on, a seemingly instinctive reaction that militates against this relationship you’re advocating.

There definitely are all sorts of messages that teenagers send which have to do with being rejecting to parents. However it’s very interesting, because the key thing is not to pay attention to them all the time. You know that there are important times when the young person really does want and does need to talk, and it might be at half past eleven at night when you really actually want to go to bed, or in the car or something. The young person has a mixture of feelings about the adult at this stage, and they’re quite contradictory and paradoxical. It’s a reflection of the contradiction inside. On the one hand they’re a child, but on the other hand they’re an adult, and they want to be independent. They want to feel that they don’t need their parents, so there’s that going on, but of course, they do. So I think there should be awareness, acceptance that at times you will be told that you’re embarrassing and they don’t want to have anything to do with you, but being alert to the times when they really do need you.

No 3
You raised the issue of autonomy and young people having more autonomy and the conversation we were having here, was that young people seem to have rather less autonomy and the things we were thinking about were that no longer are they packed off to the ends of the world and you get a postcard, now if you haven’t got an email you’re starting to panic and then there’s the helicopter parent around university interviews. I was absolutely staggered. Far more youngsters came with their parents than without, sessions where you had to indicate where the parents weren’t welcome. Can we not trust our children?

I have already mentioned the Macarthur Foundation and their work on adult transitions. They have said that the parents may be contributing to this just as much as the young people. They and others have suggested that this generation of parents may actually be dependent on their young people. The parents have invested more, and they need to be helicopter parents because this is satisfying something in them. The other thing I do think that there’s much more uncertainty today, and so the anxiety levels may be higher. Your examination results are more important, you know it’s more difficult to get a job, and this feeds into the stress that young people talk about. There may be a change in the parents, in that they’re being nurtured by their young people, but also social change has led to more uncertainty and more anxiety about the future for young people.

No 4
My concern is that the challenge of engaging parents when children are teenagers is that it’s too late. My work is with children from birth to five and I know that by five that child’s life chances, a child’s communication skills and a child’s self-esteem are very much driven by the circumstances in the families. And changing parents attitudes towards listening to children must be an even bigger hurdle if it’s failed to that point.

This is the argument that you have in government, with economists saying if you’ve got a certain amount of money, you’re far better off putting it into the early years than into adolescence. People find it really difficult to argue against, but actually I feel really strongly that we have to argue against it, and I’ll give you two examples why this is the case.

When I was working in Whitechapel in Tower Hamlets, I was involved with a family where a fifteen-year-old for the first time, who had been no trouble up to then, got into trouble and was at the police station. The parents were called and these were parents who really were both upset, but engaged. They really took it seriously. They saw it as a wake-up call, and started to get engaged with their son and as a consequence, he was never in trouble again. And so, their engagement at that time really made a difference. Someone I know whose son failed his A-levels. You could fail you’re A-levels and you could be left to find your own way, or you could have parents who say, okay, something’s gone wrong here, we’ve really got to get involved. And both those examples, the A-levels and the young person in Whitechapel I think illustrate how incredibly important it is, because parents at this stage have the chance to turn something around, and we can never say that if they’d got involved earlier… That’s not the argument here. The argument is that during these adolescent years all sorts of things are going to happen; difficult relationships with a teacher, possibly something to do with a boyfriend or girlfriend, an STI or pregnancy or whatever, there’s going to be dozens of things that are going to happen. For some young people it’s going to be relatively minor, for some might be really important. If the parents aren’t there, those upsets, or their milestones are likely to have much more negative consequences than if the parents are involved. So my argument is, taking those examples, you cannot say that parental involvement is too late, because actually parental involvement is needed at that time. Of course I absolutely agree that it would be better if these things happened earlier, but maybe the parents aren’t going to be involved earlier, and maybe you can’t tell a child who’s 7 or 8 you’d better be careful about drugs or sex or whatever. It’s got to happen, and then the parents have got to be engaged, so my argument is that parents are going to remain really really important during the adolescent stage.

No 5
You mentioned freedom. I wondered if children have less freedom today than in the past?

People always say children have less freedom than us. They can’t play out in the way they used to be able to. There are all these physical constraints, they can’t walk to school and so on. In that sense it is true, but that’s not really the case for teenagers. However it does depend on where you live. Rural is different from urban. But I’m not sure what parents will say. Some will say but I was disciplined. I was told what to do. I wasn’t allowed to do this, that and the other, it’s that sort of thing. It’s complicated. In some ways there is more freedom, more disposable income. Young people have much more money. There are certainly ways, the whole media and the internet and that sort of thing, creates freedom and autonomy. Children and young people have rights now. That’s a huge social change that affects us all, but particularly in institutional settings. There are lots of ways in which there is more freedom, but on the other hand, I can see there are restrictions.

There is more disposable income, although the number of children growing up in poverty is increasing and there’s greater disparity in this country. This country has a greater income inequality than other European countries, but poverty is relative and actually, apart from the small group who are very seriously deprived, if you compared children whose parents are in manual occupations today with those living forty years ago, they’ve got far more disposable income today that was the case in the past.

Published at www.familylinks.org.uk